Biblical tale taken with a pinch of salt

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The Independent Online

Religious Affairs Correspondent

British geologists claim to have solved two of the most perplexing problems of Biblical scholarship: why did Lot's wife turn into a pillar of salt, and what exactly were the inhabitants of Gomorrah up to?

According to the book of Genesis, Sodom was destroyed by God in a rain of brimstone from heaven after its inhabitants had attempted to gang- rape two angels who were staying there with a righteous man named Lot, and had refused Lot's counter offer of two virgin daughters. Lot, with his wife and daughters, fled the city the next morning, urged by the angels not to look back.

"Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot's wife behind him looked back, and she became a pillar of salt."

The name of Sodom thus became the epitome of evil and decadence in the Bible; and the sin of Sodom identified with homosexuality, possibly because Lot, the Sodomite made good, was later seduced by both his daughters in turn, and their offspring went on to found numerous tribes.

In an article in the Quarterly Journal of Engineering Geology, two British geologists, Graham Harris and Anthony Beardow, have analysed soil and rock from the Lisan peninsula, which juts into the Dead Sea, and found them to be full of bitumen, and made of rock types which will liquefy in a sufficiently large earthquake.

According to the geologists, the bitumen pits, which are also mentioned in Genesis, might burst into flames in an earthquake, which would also throw the waves of the Dead Sea into such confusion that salt-floes could rear up and form a momentary shape of a woman looking back at the cataclysm. Hence, they say, the origin of the legend of Lot's wife.

The cities of the plain, the geologists believe, were important trading hubs involved in the salt and the mining of bitumen, a tarry precursor to oil. So, in modern terms, Gomorrah was in the oil business and Sodom was in marketing.